Nonduality and The Middle Way

About a year and a half ago, the Washington Post noted:

Sociologists say that we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular. We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”

I’ve begun to notice that “nonduality” has become a key word in this new vernacular.

SANDAn example is an organization I recently became aware of called Science and Nonduality. They have a cool acronym (SAND) and a cool logo. According to their website, “The mission of Science and Nonduality (SAND) is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but rather is based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.”

Last month SAND held a conference in San Jose California that featured a bunch of participants I’ve never heard of before. But they’re having a “retreat”called “The Sutras of Science” at Esalen in February that will feature Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman, among others.

It seems rather obvious to me that they are using Nonduality as a substitute for the word “religion.” You notice in the mission statement above they mention religious dogma, and this is a group that seems informed by Eastern philosophy which to my mind is rather non-dogmatic. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overlay our issues with Western religion onto Eastern spirituality, and that’s a shame.

Several of the speakers at the SAND 2014 conference are described as “nonduality teachers.” I wasn’t aware that nonduality had become a field all its own. I guess I haven’t been paying attention.  I wonder if the pay for nonduality teachers is good. If so, I’d like to give it a try. I think I’d qualify.

Nonduality has been around quite a while.  Although Chinese philosophy has always had a non-dual view, what we think of as nondualism more or less got its start with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his teaching on the two truths.  In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, he calls nonduality (advaya) “the gate of security, the destruction of false views; the path walked by all buddhas, the ‘dharma of no-self-nature.’”

nondual-hotdog-72On the SAND website they write, “nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness. Our starting point is the statement ‘we are all one’.” This is true, and yet I wonder if they understand that this “oneness” belongs to the relative truth. In his Treatise on The Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

All things enter the non-dual dharma. Although things are not two, they are not one either.”

They do, however, posses one nature: they “are in truth sunya (empty).” For Nagarjuna, the non-dual dharma is like space (akasa) in that it is “completely unobstructive.”

I also occasionally see folks write something like this: “The message of nonduality is that the true nature of reality is non-dual.” Well, that is certainally part of the message and nonduality is an aspect of the true nature of reality, but not the whole thing. What I mean is that often people take nonduality to be the ultimate truth.

Actually, duality and nonduality both belong to the realm of relative truth. Neither-duality-nor-nonduality is the ultimate truth. In other words, the ultimate truth is neither extreme, it is the middle. Here’s one reason why Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka or Middle Way.

Let’s take the example of a coin. The point is not that we have one and only one coin. The point is that the coin has two sides. As K. Venkata Ramanan points out in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,

The extinction of ignorance does not leave us in a blank; it is not an act separate from the arising of knowledge. The two are simultaneous; they are two different sides of the same act, two phases of one principle. [Nagarjuna’s treatise] observes that in their ultimate nature there is no difference between ignorance and knowledge, even as there is no difference in the ultimate truth between the world of the determinate and Nirvana, the unconditioned reality.”

The ultimate truth is not emptiness because ultimately emptiness is empty. The ultimate truth is not nonduality because duality and nonduality are merely two sides of one thing. So what is this one thing? If we have to name it, let us name is Nirvana. And yet, Nagarjuna reminds us that “Nirvana is not any one thing.” This is the Middle Way.


Tibet’s Middle Way: Peaceful conflict resolution for the 21st century

Last week, the Central Tibetan Administration launched a new campaign, called the ‘Middle Way Approach Campaign’ (Umaylam in Tibetan) aimed at educating people on what the Tibetan call for freedom truly means.

Lobsang Sangay, leader of the CTA, says, “With the Middle Way Approach Campaign, we are trying to engage the international community–young people, diplomats, media, people from all walks of life across different nations—to counter the Chinese Government’s misinformation campaign about the policy,”

CTA’s press officer Tsering Wangchuk notes, “The Middle Way has been there for many years. We are forging it into an intensive campaign to address the spread misinformation by our adversaries.”

Not impressed, the Chinese government has called the Middle Way Approach a “cliché.” No surprise there. Yet, no matter how Chinese authorities try to dismiss it, they know better. They are not ignorant about Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and they know that far from a cliché, or a simply a political strategy, the Middle Way is also a Buddhist doctrine. In this way, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have founded their fight for freedom on spiritual principle, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Essentially, all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism are within the doctrinal lineage of the Middle Way school (Madhyamaka) founded by Nagarjuna.  This concept of the Middle Way has to do with the insight into emptiness and transcending arguments about being or non-being. However, Nagarjuna based his Madhyamaka on the “Middle Way” as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

Chinese character for “The Middle Way”
Chinese character for “The Middle Way”

Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”

Tibet’s Middle Way Approach has been to seek dialogue with China and not take an extremist position, to engage in right speech. It’s an approach based on understanding  rather than condemning the adversary. The Dalai Lama has stated many times that he does not expect to ever gain full independence for his country.  In the spirit of compromise, in the Middle Way Approach, the Tibetans are simply asking for a bit more autonomy. Yet, even while the Tibetans do not demand, but respectfully request, China will not loosen her iron grip.

Nagarjuna summed up his philosophy like this:

Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.”

In The Key to the Middle Way (on Emptiness), the Dalai Lama explains the Middle Way between existence and non-existence:

[If phenomena] had no deep mode of being other than their external or superficial mode of being, and if thus the way they appeared and the way they existed were in agreement, then it would be sufficient to hold that conventional modes of appearance are true just as they appear, and to place confidence in them. However, this is not so. Though phenomena appear as if true, most true, ultimately they are not true. Therefore, phenomena abide in the middle way, not truly or inherently existent and also not utterly non-existent. This view, or way of viewing—the knowledge of such a mode of being, just as it is— is called the view of the middle way.”

Although, Emptiness as the Middle Way is nuanced and seemingly abstruse, there is nothing impractical about it, for insight into emptiness is the insight that destroys all notions of nationalism, racism and hate, and it is the principle of equality that makes real dialogue possible.

Wednesday, June 4th, the Dalai Lama reiterated his belief that the ‘Middle Way Approach” is still best for Tibet:

Recently things become very, very difficult but our stand — no change . . . Independence, complete independence is unrealistic — out of (the) question . . . Sometimes I describe totalitarian regimes as no ear, only mouth . . . [The Chinese officials] lecture us, never really listen [and angry that] I am not acting like ‘yes minister’ . . . Our approach failed to bring some concrete or positive result from the government, but the Chinese public, or Chinese intellectuals, or students who study in foreign countries — they are beginning to know the reality . . . That, I think, is a positive side, a significant result . . . Sometimes people have the impression (this is) some crisis very recently happened . . . I meet some Chinese. They are frustrated. Very hostile. Then I tell them long stories . . . 60 years of stories. Then they understand, oh — the Tibetan issue is really a very, very complicated issue.”

tibet-middlewayWatch the video ‘ UMAYLAM- Middle Way Approach’ Peaceful conflict resolution for the 21st century.


Nagarjuna’s Process of Realization

This is a fragment of what was certainly a longer work that has been lost. According to Bu-ston, the Tibetan historian,  Vyavaharasiddhi was written “to show that through there is no own-being (svabhava) in the ultimate sense (paramarthatah), still the empirical is justified conventionally.”

I like this because it is short, like a poem, and so is a succinct exposition of a major point of Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

The translation is Chr. Lindtner’s, from Nagarjuniana, Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna (with a couple a changes):

Vyavaharasiddhi/The Process of Realization by Nagarjuna

One syllable is not a mantra. On the other hand, many syllables are not a mantra either:  dependent upon syllables that are therefore insubstantial, this mantra is neither existent nor non-existent.

Likewise no medicine appears independently of it specific ingredients. It appears like an illusory elephant; it is not identical with them nor is it absolutely different from them.

It arises in dependent co-origination. Who would be so ignorant as to maintain that it is existent or non-existent? Actually visual consciousness arises similarly when it is based on eye and form.

Projected by the power of karma and passion, the appropriator arises out of existence. Form also arises in the same manner. Who would be so ignorant as to maintain that it is existent or non-existent?

Similarly, all the twelve members of existence are simply conventional designations. Consequently all phenomena such as extinction have only been advocated by the Buddhas with a specific purpose.

As it appears to be a mantra without really being a mantra, and as it appears to be a medicine with really in itself being a medicine, thus all phenomena are stated to be dependent. Neither of the two can be established independently.

Lindtner’s explanation: “Though all phenomena, such as mantras, etc., arise dependently and thus neither are existing nor non-existing, they are none the less efficient. Likewise all interior and exterior phenomena arise dependently, and though they are thus mere metaphorical concepts. Buddha has formulated his dharmas with a specific practical purpose (samdhaya . . . “


It’s Only Words

The other day I read a online presentation that sparked some thoughts:

Someone says Buddhism is X. Someone else says that’s incorrect, Buddhism as X is bogus; Buddhism is Y.

Now, if X means Buddhism is about beings from outer space, then I’d agree, that’s bogus. But if X means Buddhism is about awareness, that’s not bogus. Although, I would add that Buddhism is about many things and it’s difficult to pin it down with just one word.

In this presentation, it seems that “awareness” is being used for the Buddhist term sati, which is usually translated as mindfulness. Frankly, I’m not too sure about the wisdom of denouncing mindfulness as a bogus teaching. But, regardless of that, mindfulness, awareness, are only words.

I looked for some nuance or context that would bring this contention that awareness is bogus into focus for me, but the presentation suddenly jumped to a somewhat convoluted explanation of bodhicitta.

For me, this brings up the subject of non-contentiousness, because it seems like that this is just an example of someone objecting to the meaning of a term for no apparent purpose, perhaps other than for the sake of objecting.  Or, it could be a case of someone thinking they know better than the ancient masters who developed these terms.

As I noted in an earlier post, Nagarjuna stressed the importance of non-contentiousness (anupalambha) in the Buddha’s teachings. He suggested that the tendency to seize, to cling, is the root of conflict and suffering.  One of Nagarjuna’s goals was to remove the ground of contention and quarrel among the Buddhist schools, and he advised all to avoid contention and instead, fare on the way of non-contentiousness and non-clinging.

In Middle Way philosophy, non-exclusive understanding is the key to the skillfulness of non-clinging. K. Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajnaparamita Sastra, writes,

To be aware of the possibility of different formulations of one and the same truth from different stand points is to rise above the exclusive clinging to any one of these formulations as absolutely true. This is the non-exclusive understanding that lies at the root of the Buddha’s skillfulness.

Two persons may learn to associate entirely different referents for any particular word. One is not more right than the other, although someone might say that someone else is incorrect because the referent is not in accord with common usage. Furthermore, any word can be used to designate any referent, and in fact most words are used to designate several different referents; and several different words may designate the same referent.

Normally what one person considers a thing “to be”, i.e. what the word designates, is what the thing is to that person and does not imply that some other usage may, or may not, be right or better for someone else if the other person prefers it. And yet, some people will write and speak as if they believed that if another person’s meaning is different from what it is to them, then the other person cannot be right.

Ultimately, we find that all designations are meaningless. As Karl Jaspers explains in his essay on Nagarjuna:

When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) that I employ “signify” things . . . but designation and differentiation leads us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different. For if they were one, the word would burn when we said “fire.” If they were different, there could be no designation without a thing designated, and conversely no thing designated without a designation; hence they cannot be different. Thus designation and thing designated are neither the same nor different; thus in [Nagarjuna’s] discourse, they are nothing at all.

Yeah, it kind of gives me a headache too. But the point is that in using language there is no other way to communicate other than with significations (signs, labels) attached to the words we use, which includs the referents, the meanings, the context. Yet, all these are traps and every word, every sentence only entangles us further in exactly what we are trying to escape from – that is, to not live by signs or appearance of meaning, to rise above differences and distinctions, and to see the world in a broader context.

To obtain this understanding is what Nagarjuna called “The State of Prajna-paramita” – the state of transcendent wisdom, freedom from conflict, the state of mind where all contention ceases.

The term anupalambha, used  here in the sense of “non-contentiousness”, literally means “non-observing, non-perception”, which refers to the absence of preferences and distinctions (see Seng-ts’an’s Verses on the Heart Mind). In Middle Way philosophy, it stands for the “voidness of all appearance.” This is what it means when in the larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra it says “real prajnaparamita is the cessation of all appearances.”  But it’s not actually the disappearance of designation and differentiation, but rather the dissolution of our desire to seize them.

So, when in the Heart Sutra, it says, “all dharmas [things] are marked by emptiness” it really means that ultimately things are un-marked, that they arise without any significant appearance, designation or differentiation that we can seize. It is the appearances of things, their designations, which are illusions, and empty; not necessarily the things themselves.

When words are signs for ideas in which there is nothing outside of the idea that corresponds to the idea, when there is no referent but only the fiction of one, then the idea can be called bogus, for it is only a pretended idea referring to a pretended referent.